The prob­lem with Glo­ria Steinem’s new mem­oir: great cause, dull story.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY ROX­ANNE ROBERTS rox­anne.roberts@wash­ Rox­anne Roberts is a reporter for The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Style sec­tion.

Paul was con­verted on the road to Da­m­as­cus. Glo­ria Steinem saw the light on the road to Toledo. Or New Delhi. Or was it Hous­ton? In “My Life on the Road,” her first book in more than two decades, the 81-yearold fem­i­nist leader takes a trip down mem­ory lane: the jour­neys, trav­el­ing com­pan­ions and de­tours in a life­time of ac­tivism. At each stop she learned some­thing pro­found, some­thing mov­ing, some­thing that filled her with re­solve to keep fight­ing the good fight — all lov­ingly re­con­structed in 250 pages.

That’s great news for Steinem fans and fu­ture bi­og­ra­phers: The book is a travel diary of the women’s move­ment, a first-per­son ac­count of Sec­ond Wave feminism. But if this is your first deep dive into her world, it’s a tsunami of earnest­ness that all but swamps read­ers with Life Lessons. I’m hang­ing on a limb here, but any­one who picks up a book by Glo­ria Steinem prob­a­bly knows that men can still be chau­vin­ists and women can still be treated un­fairly. Duh and duh.

And therein lies the prob­lem with this book. Like all apos­tles, she com­pletely and pas­sion­ately be­lieves in her life’s mis­sion. She is, in a word, re­lent­less—a cru­cial trait for an ac­tivist, but less en­dear­ing for those who have to hear (or read) the drum­beat, over and over, even if they are al­ready sym­pa­thetic to the cause.

Take what could have been a fun, or at the very least, in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence: Thanks­giv­ing with your very rich boyfriend. Steinem is on a pri­vate jet with her un­named date and four other cou­ples, also very rich, headed for a long week­end in Palm Springs, Calif. Maybe, she thinks, she can con­vince them that it’s smart busi­ness to sup­port health and anti-vi­o­lence projects for girls and women. But there’s not much time for lob­by­ing: They’re play­ing ten­nis or golf; she’s in a bun­ga­low writ­ing an over­due ar­ti­cle.

On Thanks­giv­ing Day, the group is in­vited to din­ner with Frank Si­na­tra. She tries to get his wife, Bar­bara, in­ter­ested in do­nat­ing to do­mes­tic abuse vic­tims, with­out suc­cess. When the leg­endary singer fi­nally shows up, Steinem notes only that his wife waits on him like a geisha and that he has an enor­mous col­lec­tion of toy trains, which he proudly shows off.

In­stead of be­ing cu­ri­ous — “Hey, Frank, what’s with the trains?” — Steinem silently cal­cu­lates the cost and thinks of all the ways the money could have been bet­ter spent. On the flight home, the men are talk­ing merg­ers, and the women are talk­ing about weight loss. Steinem tries once more to con­vince them that sup­port­ing women’s causes is good for busi­ness but is po­litely re­buffed. “I am an iso­lated is­land around which an ocean of talk flows,” she writes.

Or maybe she is just that per­son who never lets up, who’s not much in­ter­ested in any­thing out­side her spe­cific uni­verse, whom peo­ple po­litely avoid be­cause she con­fuses so­cial oc­ca­sions for fundrais­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. The kind of per­son who makes his­tory but isn’t much fun to be around.

To be fair, her early life wasn’t much fun. Her fa­ther was a happy-go-lucky trav­el­ing sales­man; her mother men­tally ill. The fam­ily trav­eled the coun­try dur­ing the De­pres­sion, and she wasn’t en­rolled in school un­til she was 11 years old, a his­tory well-suited for a fu­ture as a so­cial or­ga­nizer. “It sat­is­fies my ad­dic­tion to free­dom that came from my fa­ther, and my love of com­mu­nity that came from see­ing the price my mother paid for hav­ing none,” she writes.

The roots of that root­less­ness — with no chil­dren of her own, no de­sire for wealth and a late-in-life mar­riage — launched an un­usual life for a woman in the 1950s: writ­ing, or­ga­niz­ing and ac­tivism. De­spite, or be­cause of, her

Maya An­gelou, left, and Glo­ria Steinem on Aug. 27, 1983, com­mem­o­rat­ing the 20th an­niver­sary of the March on Wash­ing­ton.

strik­ing looks and in­tel­lect, she be­came and re­mains the most rec­og­niz­able face of the women’s move­ment.

It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary life, one filled with en­coun­ters with amaz­ing char­ac­ters who speak in per­fect sound bites and con­firm that she’s on the right track. On a taxi ride to JFK Air­port in the 1960s, Steinem is mak­ing out with her African Amer­i­can lover. In­stead of con­demn­ing the cou­ple, the driver tells them they re­mind him of his own mar­riage: “Me and my wife and you two, we’re what this coun­try is all about.” Years later, while Steinem is cam­paign­ing for Hil­lary Clin­ton, a drunken critic of Hil­lary con­fides to her that the Clin­tons’ mar­riage “made her aware of how un­equal hers was.”

It could have hap­pened ex­actly like that, but af­ter a few dozen sto­ries like this I be­gan to won­der if some things might have been ex­ag­ger­ated for dra­matic pur­poses.

Af­ter a cam­pus visit in Bos­ton that goes past mid­night, Steinem writes, she misses the last plane and takes a car ser­vice to New York be­cause she is sched­uled to leave on yet an­other trip in the morn­ing. Her driver is a chatty former trucker who misses his old road bud­dies and in­vites the wide-awake Steinem to ex­pe­ri­ence a real truck stop. She loves it so much that they stop at four more dives, where she bonds with fe­male bar­tenders and driv­ers.

“I see Man­hat­tan lights re­flect­ing in the night sky, but I’ve lost all sense of time,” she writes. Me, too. Some­how she’s man­aged to squeeze in a four-hour drive and five eye-open­ing stops be­fore dawn, dis­cov­er­ing the gritty au­then­tic­ity of this unseen world in just one night. Po­etic? Sure. Po­etic li­cense? Maybe.

Steinem en­coun­ters a “very tac­i­turn and mas­cu­line” col­lege stu­dent in the Mid­west who shares a heart­break­ing tale of sex­ual abuse. “I wouldn’t say I was lucky,” he tells her, “but it would have been worse if I thought I had to con­trol and abuse other peo­ple.” That may have been a ver­ba­tim ac­count of his lengthy mono­logue (per­haps Steinem has per­fect re­call), but it reads like a tragic-yet-up­lift­ing para­ble rather than an ac­tual con­ver­sa­tion.

This shape-shift­ing, her stream-of-raised­con­scious­ness rev­e­la­tions, might work in a novel — there’s a no­bil­ity and fierce­ness to Steinem’s quest, the clas­si­cal hero’s jour­ney in­ter­twined with her fas­ci­na­tion with Na­tive Amer­i­can his­tory and cul­ture. But as a mem­oir, it’s sanc­ti­mo­nious and cu­ri­ously im­per­sonal. There’s a lot about her fel­low ac­tivists, but barely a men­tion of the peo­ple clos­est to her: her sis­ter, who took Steinem in as a se­nior in high school so she could have a sem­b­lence of a nor­mal teenage ex­pe­ri­ence, her niece and neph­ews, her best friends.

And not a sin­gle word about her late hus­band, David Bale, a man she once said had “the great­est heart of any­one I’ve ever known.” Steinem was 66 when she mar­ried the South African busi­ness­man in 2000, and they had, by all ac­counts, a happy union un­til he died of brain can­cer three years later. The omis­sion seems es­pe­cially odd be­cause Bale (the fa­ther of ac­tor Chris­tian Bale) of­ten ac­com­pa­nied Steinem on the road. “We dis­cov­ered that he liked to travel with me, and af­ter an event, he would have 500 young women around him, all so re­lieved to see that you can be a fem­i­nist and have a re­la­tion­ship with a man — and he was so ex­cited by it,” she said in a 2011 in­ter­view with the Guardian.

It would have been in­ter­est­ing to learn more: how that re­la­tion­ship af­fected her life and work, what she learned off the road. But she lit­er­ally says noth­ing about him or her mar­riage. Then again, spouses sel­dom make it into the his­tory books, do they?

In­stead, she ded­i­cates the book to the late John Sharpe, the Bri­tish doc­tor who per­formed an il­le­gal abor­tion for Steinem in Lon­don in 1957, al­low­ing her to em­bark on her life­long jour­ney rather than be­ing a sin­gle mom at age 22. “You must prom­ise me two things,” he told her. “First, you will not tell any­one my name. Sec­ond, you will do what you want to do with your life.”

Steinem’s po­si­tion as an icon of the 20th­cen­tury fem­i­nist move­ment is un­ques­tioned. But, in the end, “My Life on the Road” is a long, dusty pil­grim­age best left to the faith­ful or the pen­i­tent. For the rest of us, it’s a tough slog.


By Glo­ria Steinem Ran­dom House. 276 pp. $28


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